A few weeks ago, Jha Goh wrote a post about whether steampunk Westerns could be considered non-Eurocentric, arguing that as long as the narrative is in the hands of the “neo-Europeans” aka, those people whose culture had derived from Europe, then these narratives are still “Eurocentric,” even if they take place outside of Europe.
Taking this into consideration, I’d argue that although Western narratives can be considered “Eurocentric,” the themes that are within the Western genre are non-Eurocentric and has evolved to become less Eurocentric. For this argument, I’ll examine Western filmmaking in particular, although other forms of Western genre exist in books, games, and other media.
The themes of Westerns include a focus on frontier lawlessness, the struggle for survival, vigilante justice, the struggle of good versus evil, the conflicts that occur during the process of industrialization, and the fight for independent living—these themes that have occurred in many places and times in history. Thus, the Western genre over time became co-opted by other filmmaking cultures which then created their own forms of “westerns.” Examples include Russian “Osterns,” which focused mainly on the Russian Civil War era after the Russian Revolution and took place in the steppes of Siberia and central Asia; interestingly enough, they are also Stalin’s favorite film genre (I consider Russia not a European, but a Eurasian country). Another is the recent Indian film Sholay that has been dubbed a “Curry Western.”
Moreover, as the Western genre evolved, its influences have drawn upon non-Eurocentric sources. One of the biggest ones upon the genre (and an influence for many other filmmakers in general) is Japanese cinema icon Akira Kurosawa and his samurai films. Kurosawa had a love for American westerns, which directly influenced several of his films. The Western motif is prominent in Seven Samurai, which, in turn, directly spawned The Magnificent Seven. Also, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and the sequel Sanjuro with its “no name” protagonist influenced Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, featuring Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character. There is even a listing dubbed “Kurosawa westerns” that feature several major films and their Kurosawa influences.
This cross-cultural cinematic relationship continues today. This week, I’ll review three “Asian westerns” that have come out in the past couple of years and examine how each film puts its own cultural spin on the traditional Westerns. And, of course, I think each one has its own potential for qualifying as Asian “Weird West.”
Sukiyaki Western Django — An artistic tribute to the Western genre and a Japanese classic.
Sukiyaki is a traditional Japanese dish made by mixing together vegetables, meat, and bean curd and frying them together. A play off the term “spaghetti westerns,” which were American westerns filmed in Italy by Italian directors, the title Sukiyaki Western Django (SWD) implies a combination of both Japanese high art and Western genre tropes to create a cinematic cross-cultural mix.
In SWD, the Western serves as an artistic motif, but there is nothing strictly historical or traditional about this film. The setting is stated on a sign in Japanese kanji to be the prospector town of “Nevada”; the all-Japanese cast speak English and use clichéd rancher terms in their dialogue. The plot centers around two rival gangs fighting a turf war in order to gain access to Nevada’s infamous gold and a Lone Gunman who rides into town with his own type of justice. The clothing has experimental feel: the Heike (the Reds) look like they came out of the losing side of a paintball fight, and the Ganji (the Whites) don a mix of stylish sportswear, white leather, and feathers galore. Weaponry are six-barrel pistols and swinging katana blades.
Along with the Western genre structure and premise are several nods to traditional Japanese culture. For instance, the artistic cardboard backdrop of Mount Fuji and the rising sun in the beginning of SWD echoes a series of famous woodcut portraits of the same image. The storyline itself has parallels to the famous warrior tale the Tale of Heike: the main characters are named after central figures in the tale, and Quentin Tarantino, the storyteller of this movie, quotes the opening lines of the Tale of Heike before he begins his story (another nod to tradition, since this warrior tale had been passed along by storytelling monks).
The main plotline of the Tale of Heike, which records the eventual downfall of the Heike clan is shown as a subplot in SWD. Notably enough, the prideful Heike leader Kiyomori signifies his downfall by relying on props of the West: he abandons the traditional book of Heike to read Shakespeare’s Henry VI, changes his name to Henry, and takes faith in the fact that in that play the “Reds” win the War of the Roses. His desperation to win against the Genji despite his poor leadership lead him to make drastic decisions at the cost of his men, and in the end, he steals a Gatling machine gun in hopes to outbeat his rival—only to fail.
The Good the Bad and the Weird “Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom” The Korean remake of a Western classic
It has been argued that Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly had inspired by Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Now, the story has flipped its cultural inspiration once more in this Korean remake by Kim Jee-Woon. In this non-Eurocentric spin on the Western classic, the Wild West is Western Manchuria and the time is the 1940s, during Koreans’ struggle for independence against the Imperial Japanese army. Park Do-Won (“The Good”) is a bounty hunter with his sights set on capturing Park Chang-yi (“The Bad”), known to him as the “Finger Chopper.” Meanwhile, Chang-yi is hired to retrieve a mysterious map that fell into the hands of a Japanese banker during a planned train heist, but is thwarted when Yoon Tae-Goo (“The Weird”) gets to the banker first—and inadvertently gets his hands on the map. What results is a shoot-em-up adventure as the three fight alongside and against each other in order to find hidden treasure out in the steppes.
People comment that the movie lifted a lot from The Good the Bad and the Ugly, but I consider this film a Korean re-make of an American Western. However, the remake fully immerses itself in its own historical context.
Dynamite Warrior “Khon Fai Bin” Weird West set in Thailand
Unlike SWD and GBW, which are films with obvious Western inspirations, Dynamite Warrior is a film that is completely original in premise, but can still be distinctly classified as a Western. Set in 1910 in the independent kingdom of Siam, vain and arrogant nobleman Lord Waeng is touting the latest of agricultural technology from the West: the steam-powered tractor. The cost of such machinery is too expensive for the average farmer, and so with no one buying, Lord Waeng schemes to steal farmers’ buffalo in order to force them to purchase his machines. In comes Jone Bang Fai, a mysterious Robin-Hood type bandit who steals the buffalo back to distribute to the poor farmers. He comes in, not riding on a horse toting a gun, but cruising on a giant rocket (later, it’s revealed that he used to work in a fireworks factory as a child) and using Muay Thai martial arts to fight his enemies.
Clip from the beginning of Dynamite Warrior.
What makes this film Weird West is the addition of a supernatural element: Jone Bang Fai is after a wizard who had murdered his parents years ago and suspects Nai Hoi Sing, a buffalo rancher with magical powers: Sing is able to insert animal spirits into his helpers in order to protect his herds. Lord Waeng makes a deal with Sing’s dark rival the Back Wizard in order to defeat Sing and get his livestock, and soon, Jone Bang Fai gets involved unwittingly into their plot. As loyalties unfold and Sing’s and Jone’s pasts are revealed, the plot leads to a shoot-out of epic proportions with a full-scale rocket siege and a supernatural showdown.
Each of these films contains distinctive Western genre elements, and yet the Western themes that each of these films embrace tie in closely with their country’s own personal histories: the struggle between the oppressed against the established authority, technology seen as a vehicle that motivates destruction, and the exploration of moral grays.
Scholarly information and analysis of the Tale of Heike – A website dedicated to the tale of Heike created by Stanford alumni John Wallace
Syllabus for the class Samurai, Cowboy, Shaolin Monk: National Myths and Transnational Forms in Literature and Film A class that was part of the Expanding East Asian Studies program at Columbia University. If I had gone to Columbia University in four years ago, I would’ve totally signed up.
Kurosawa’s samurais Article on flickerfilm’s Blogspot
Kurosawa’s Lasting Impact on Western Film – Article about the directors influences in Western cinema on Buzzle.com